A Question of Mercy

Rabe, David

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Annotated by:
Jones, Therese
  • Date of entry: Mar-26-1998


This play dramatizes the story of Anthony, a character with AIDS, who implores a retired surgeon to end his suffering. Torn between his ethical beliefs and empathic response, Dr. Robert Chapman finally agrees to advise Anthony and his partner, Thomas, as to the method and means for committing suicide. Dr. Chapman's moral conflict is mirrored by Thomas's emotional one as he is caught between respecting a lover's wishes and fearing his premature death. The couple's friend, Susanah, reinforces Thomas's and Dr. Chapman's concern about criminal consequences. After a failed suicide attempt on his own, Anthony has a change of heart.


Playwright David Rabe recalls being immediately inspired by "A Question of Mercy," the essay by Richard Selzer, M.D., which appeared in The New York Times Magazine on September 22, 1991. Written in the form of a diary, Dr. Selzer's essay recounted the poignant dilemma of a physician who wanted to abide by a personal and professional code of ethics and to end the desperate suffering of a young man in the late stages of AIDS. Seizing on the moral conflict and emotional ambivalence of the physician, Rabe constructed a play that successfully dramatizes each and every character's anguished uncertainty about assisting in a loved one's suicide.

A Question of Mercy is a cautionary tale in that it compels all witnesses, both those inside as well as outside the play, to question whether or not they could help a loved one die and then live with themselves. As the drama unfolds, the characters become more concerned--understandably concerned--with their own prospective suffering after the suicide than with Anthony's very real suffering at the present time.

His wish for a "civilized" death in Thomas's arms is comprehensible but proves impossible. The result is a muddled end-game, fraught with fear, pain, abandonment and failure, a provocative depiction of the urgent and agonizing quandary of those at the center of such an experience.


Selzer's essay, "A Question of Mercy," is included in his autobiography, Down From Troy (New York: William Morrow, 1992).



Place Published

New York



Page Count